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May 27, 2015

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On fixing schools, please be practical

Last week I quacked a bit about education funding, after a minion of Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval warned education leaders to brace for deeper-than-expected cuts. That, I wrote, is shortsighted and self-defeating.

Still is.

But that column only addressed itself to Sandoval’s message, so naturally I heard from people who rightly say education is beset by other problems. Waste. Leadership. Inadequate parenting. (One reader, a retired teacher of 26 years, sent in a long list of wasteful practices she’d witnessed in the Clark County School District, which I’ll take up in a future column.)

Only a fool would disagree with these assertions, of course. Adequate funding — resulting, one hopes, from a systemic repair of Nevada’s tax system (a guy can dream, can’t he?) — is only part of a very complex and urgent solution.

Then again, perhaps I’m overthinking this. A guy named Gerald e-mailed his prescription for success, and he sticks to basics: “English only, no illegals, kick out the bad guys and things will improve.”

Before this exchange played out to its predictable end — with me informing Gerald that he is “clearly an idiot,” and Gerald proposing that I am a “piece of left-wing crap” — he trotted out many of the arguments you hear about fixing schools: Throwing money at a problem won’t solve it! (“It’s not the money, it’s the system,” he wrote.) Things worked better in the old days! (“My parents taught me English. Was that wrong? The bad kids were removed from school. Is that wrong?”) Parents who aren’t like his suck! (“School has become their government-sponsored baby sitter and lunch wagon.”) Schools coddle too many interest groups! (“Systems with one language work.”) We’re paying for too much namby-pamby curriculum! (“How many … finger-painting, dance instructors do we have?”)

These are not unusual positions to take in conservative-leaning Nevada (or in many other places), and a few have a tang of accuracy. Teaching surely would be easier if every student was fluent in English. Some parents do try to get schools to handle problems that have nothing to do with education. (Example: A parent recently asked a local principal to do something about her noisy upstairs neighbors, who, she said, disturbed her child’s studies.)

But there’s also an element of reality-denial or tunnel vision here. We have the world we have, and it doesn’t always yield to ideological solutions.

Take immigration, in which Gerald’s get-tough attitude toward illegal 7-year-olds was, you’ll recall, previously voiced by several local candidates emboldened by Arizona’s law. So it’s not a fringe sentiment.

If we wanted to think our way toward a real-world position, we’d ask ourselves: What’ll happen to those kids? (Don’t worry, conservatives, this isn’t an argument for — shudder — compassion.) Gerald and those who think like him apparently assume they’d evaporate. Or go home. Or … something. In any case, they’d cease to be a problem.

But here in the real world, most wouldn’t go anywhere. And while the lack of a free American education for their kids might dissuade some illegals from jumping the border, plenty would still come and bring kids. Denying them an education would likely create an underclass of youngsters with even fewer options than they have now. So all Gerald and his ilk would really do is redistribute the problem from one system, education, to others, including law enforcement. It’ll cost us either way.

I don’t have the solution to the immigration or education issues — judging from the disheveled state of those problems, no one does. It’s certainly not as simple as “English only, no illegals … and things will improve.” But I am pretty sure that a strong school system needs to be a linchpin in a lot of solutions, and that it deserves better than the heavy hits coming its way.

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